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A tribute to the resilience of popular taste

The best news usually comes in the smallest typefaces. So one had to peer at the papers hard last week to learn that the Italian director Roberto Benigni's sharp comedy about the Holocaust, Life is Beautiful, was the most profitable film in America last year (the most profitable, note - not the highest earning, a crude yardstick that measures little more than marketing musclepower). Life is Beautiful was nowhere near king of the world in the gross sense - Titanic took a bloated $1.83bn. But according to the figures in Variety magazine Benigni's sweet slice of life-and-death raked in $140m at the box office, representing a handsome 15-fold return on its original pounds 9m budget.

This is cheering news to anyone who likes to see big guns spiked once in a while. After the success of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty (the most profitable piece of celluloid in history, having made $205m on an outlay of just $3.5m) it confirms that size, while it may matter, isn't everything. It is not as if all these cheap propositions are works of art - far from it. But it is telling that seven of the 10 (Life is Beautiful, Pi, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Everest, Sliding Doors, Smoke Signals and Spice World) cost less than $10m - roughly the price of the propeller screws in Titanic, or the tidal wave in Prince of Egypt. Goliath - meet David.

On one level it makes perfect sense. The two most expensive commodities in the cinema are stars and special effects, and these, more often than not, are exactly the things that work against the success (speaking artistically - irrelevant, I know) of the film itself. A $100m purse virtually guarantees (unless you are Steven Spielberg) that there will be too many cooks. So if capitalism worked in an unmysterious way, Hollywood would respond to this fairly solid trend by investing in many modest projects. These, after all, are the potential goldmines.

Naturally, it is not that simple. In the winner-takes-all, monopolistic financial structure that controls film distribution, the market is weighted in favour of the producer, not the consumer (the audience). Hollywood is almost bound to persist in concentrating its fire on big-budget operations. Mere profitability is not, in the end, as important as sheer cash flow. A high return on investment is less exciting than simple industrial clout. After all, the studios have to fund what they call "high overheads", a neutral-sounding term for whopping salaries.

As it happens, a similar trend has been stalking our bookshops in the last few years. Many of the most striking commercial successes - Birdsong, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Fever Pitch, A Brief History of Time, The Beach, Longitude - have been the literary equivalent of low-budget movies. Not one of these books was captured in a frenzied public auction; the authors were not stars; none provoked splashy headlines slavering over the advances they had commanded. The books didn't even win prizes. They were simply nudged up the bestseller list by word of mouth. Theirs was no assault on the summit, but a stroll that climbed over the gates and carried on up.

Perhaps this is no more - nor less - than a tribute to the resilience of popular taste, which insists on taking what it wants even when deafened by noisy propaganda for rival attractions. But it might again be a sign that the routine economics of literature are loaded. The books that command the most attention are often non-books: ghosted biographies or sensational kiss 'n' tell sagas (or perhaps we should call them kiss and sell). These high-profile works - what we might call the hypocracy - are not always built to last, but they have enough celebrity news value to clean up in newspaper serialisations. Germaine Greer and Monica Lewinsky, to cite two authors of the moment, might not seem to have much in common, but in this respect they are both - pardon the phrase - cash cows. It's only a guess, but Greer was probably paid a hundred times more for her new book than for The Female Eunuch - a classic that came from nowhere.

There is no need to find this vexing. In Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift the narrator, Charlie Citrine, responds to the wealth that showers on him by apologising for it. All this money is not his doing, he insists: "capitalism made it, for dark comic reasons of its own". Raymond Carver said much the same when he started to win prizes and grants. "The wheel has stopped on my number," he would say. "Don't tell anyone." Fame and fortune land on the deserving and the undeserving alike. And posterity isn't bothered: it knows that it will all come out in the wash in the end. But that doesn't mean we can't raise a glass when the little guy makes good. Life is beautiful. So is small.